Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish on esglobal. To read the original piece, click here.
On October 28th, Brazilians will elect a new president. The presidential election will be the first since the controversial removal from office of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, the culmination of a political trial sorely lacking concrete evidence of corruption. It will also be the first election since the start of the Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), which has exposed deep-rooted system of political-business corruption in Brazil that continues to affect the entire region. As a result of these factors and others, it will be the most uncertain election since the return of democracy in 1985.
A little less than six months before the conclusive second round vote, the Brazilian electorate continues to inconclusively swing between nostalgia for the economic bonanza unleashed in the previous decade under PT and disenfranchisement with the political establishment. Corruption, having taken precedent over chronic issues such as security, has become the driving issue in the election and will be a key factor in determining who emerges as leading candidates in a still-inconclusive field.
Despite suspicions over his involvement in Lava Jato and his recent imprisonment, polls continue to put Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as a heavy favorite. The former president, who oversaw extremely successful social policies that lifted more than 30 million people out of poverty between 2003 and 2014, is favored by roughly one third of voters. His popularity among less wealthy Brazilians and educated left-wing voters seems to have been unhindered by his recent 12-year sentence for corruption and money laundering.
It remains unclear what the fate of the former union leader will be. But it seems likely that his jail sentence will disqualify him from running in October. Still, uncertainty over what the next few months have in store remain high. According to Mauro Paulino, director of the polling firm Datafolha: “The great challenge of the elections will be to attract voters from low-income and uneducated segments of society—as well as women—who strongly identify with Lula’s legacy.”
The most recent polls reveal that the greatest beneficiary of Lula’s apparent downfall would be the extreme conservative member of congress and former military officer Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro—who was recently denounced by the Attorney General for racism and discriminatory comments about LGBT Brazilians, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous people, refugees and women—stands at about 15% to 17% in polls, second only to the presumably disqualified Lula. In addition to his repeated discriminatory rhetoric, Bolsonaro honored Colonel Carlos Ustra, who was convicted of torture during the military dictatorship, during Rousseff’s impeachment hearings (Rousseff herself was a victim of torture during the dictatorship).
Thanks to the powerful voting bloc of educated, white, upper-middleclass voters, Bolsonaro has an advantage over candidates like Geraldo Ackmin, the former governor of Sao Paulo, and former Minister of the Environment and perennial candidate Marina Silva, an alternative progressive candidate for Lula voters who came third in the 2014 election. Bolsonaro’s political platform is vague, but he has already said that he would approve liberal gun laws in the country with the highest number of homicides in the world, eradicate indigenous reservations in the Amazon in favor of oil and mineral extraction, and privatize public companies such as Petrobras.
How is it possible that Bolsonaro, unknown by a majority of Brazilians only a few years ago, has managed to emerge as a central political figure in a country that, because of its large size and federalized system, tends to favor moderate candidates and a strong party system?
The easiest answer is the widespread public disenfranchisement with politicians, from governors and members of congress to President Michel Temer, because of prominent corruption scandals. Lula, who served as president between 2003 and 2010, is behind bars for receiving a three-story apartment from the construction firm OAS in exchange for political favors. He is also charged with accepting a mansion with a pool near Atibaia, as well as the land for the institute that bears his name.
Temer, who came to power after maneuvering behind the scenes against Rousseff, whom he served with as vice president, became the first head of state to be charged with criminal activity (corruption) during his brief term. Temer has managed to survive the charges because of his support in congress, but there are rumors of a third charge before his term ends in December.
Since May 2016, when he took office, Temer has already appointed 63 cabinet ministers, some of whom have held their posts for mere days because of scandals. His closest confidant, Geddel Vieira Lima, is in jail after authorities found his fingerprints in an apartment raid in Salvador de Bahia in which they found a hidden stash of more than 51 million reais (more than $14 million) in cash.
The former leader of the opposition, Aécio Neves of PSDB, who came second to Rousseff in 2014, is also in legal trouble. A grandson of former president Tancredo Neves, Aécio, who is a senator and the former governor of Minas Gerais, was charged for corruption and obstruction of justice in April after voice recordings from March revealed that he asked for two million reais from the agribusiness giant JBS to help with mounting legal costs. Testimony from an informant also indicates that Neves received millions of dollars in illegal contributions for his 2014 presidential campaign.
Lava Jato, which emerged from modest investigations in southern Brazil in 2014, has brought down the credibility of the country’s political system, exposing a massive network of bribes, illicit campaign financing, nepotism and fraud. The allegations touch almost every major Brazilian political party. Corporations such as Odebrecht, OAS, Petrobras and JBS, which until recently stood as examples of corporate success in an emerging global power, have been exposed as part of the plot.
The principal beneficiaries of this political tsunami are candidates who, like Bolsonaro, aren’t implicated. With his direct and accessible language, he promises radical solutions that satisfy a populace fed up with scandals. In this context, the most likely result of the October election is that Brazilians will not vote on issues such as rising unemployment and rampant organized crime; Instead, they’ll pick a candidate the candidate who is perceived as most capable of ushering in a new era free of corruption scandals.
Inequality, violence and lack of growth
Despite the unfortunate political reality, Brazil will have to face great challenges in the next five years, no matter the new president. First is the task of uniting a polarized country weary of scandals and division. For this, charisma and moderation are essential. Second, with more than 25 political parties in congress, Brazil will be ungovernable without a leader who has a solid parliamentary base to reform and stimulate the economy.
Additional challenges abound. In a country where until a few years ago the middle class could afford to go to the United States for purchases because of the strength of its currency (the real is now weaker than the dollar), the economic crisis has been devastating. Between 2014 and 2016, GDP fell by 7 percent. Since then, growth has been minimal or stagnant.
With more than 13 million unemployed and a lack of competitiveness in the global market, Brazil must change its economic model to better-reflect the demand from markets such as Asia, the Middle East, Russia and Europe. Record harvests and massive exports of soybeans, beef, poultry, orange juice, and sugar have managed to lift the country out of recession. Now the challenge is to innovate, enter global supply chains and stimulate consumption, which has been paralyzed despite inflation and interest rates at historic lows.
To do so, it will be essential to reverse the rise of inequality; extreme poverty (people who live on less than $2 a day) grew by 11% between 2016 and 2017 and now affects almost 15 million Brazilians. According to the economist Cosmo Donato, “Instead of [stable] jobs, the labor market has generated informal occupations, low wages and unstable income over time.”
The greatest challenge facing the country, according to Samira Bueno, director of the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, is the fight against violence and insecurity. It’s not just the 60,000 annual murders—a number higher than murders in China, the United States and Australia combined—but also the growing power of organized crime and the corruption of the police. The best example of this is the intervention of the military in Rio de Janeiro, where the police force had become so incapacitated that robberies and assaults had been growing at double-digit rates.
Uncertainty over the outcome of the most unusual elections since Brazil transitioned to democracy in the 1980s will continue until at least August, when the deadline to register candidates closes. Voters will then know if Lula can be a candidate, which will define the starting point of the election. Everything indicates that, no matter the scenario, the next six months will be defined by great turbulence and polarization. That’s exactly what Brazil doesn’t need if it’s to begin to move on from the cycle of setbacks that it has been suffering since the 2014 elections.
Heriberto Araújo is a journalist based in Rio de Janeiro.